My Antonia, more a book than a play
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My Antonia, more a book than a play
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

My Antonia Directed by Susanna Burney
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through December 21

Book-It Repertory's newest production is an adaptation of the book, My Antonia, by Willa Cather. Adaptor Annie Lareau also stars as Antonia in the production. The book is a spare, simply written tale of a Bohemian family who moves to the American West from Europe and has to learn virtually everything from scratch, including cooking, keeping food from spoiling, and how to protect themselves from "helpful" people who sell them old, broken-down animals for exorbitant prices. The story is told by Jim Burden, who also arrives in the West as a 10-year-old orphan to stay with his grandparents. Antonia, at the start of the novel, is 14 years old, but both Antonia and Jim discover many new things at similar times, and have much in common.

The production creates a wonderful atmosphere and uses some of Book-It's excellent band of experienced actors. Lareau embodies Antonia as if she were born Bohemian. Clark Sandford, as the patriarch, Mr. Shimerda, is heartbreaking in his inability to make the transition to the New World. George Mount does the heavy lifting as younger and older Jim Burden, with a sweet youthful manner and poetic descriptions of the land. Barbara Lindsay as Grandmother and Tom Butterworth as Grandfather create a nice family feeling for the young Jim. Mik Kuhlman as Mrs. Shimerda (Antonia's mother) is both unintentional comic relief and exemplary of the massive difficulty the family has in transitioning. Later, Kuhlman makes an upstanding townswoman who tries to help Antonia. Anna-Lisa Carlson is a lovely young immigrant woman with a mind of her own and an eye for maturing Jim.

Costumes by Janessa Jayne Styck, choreography by Laura Ferri, and strong dialect support from coach Judith Shahn gracefully enhance the event. The beautifully understated set by Bliss Kolb is a kind of windswept rolling plain perfectly evoking the description of the land.

However, ultimately, the script ends up being more of a storytelling session with demonstrations. Adapting one art form into another can be very difficult, and adding the layer of Book-It's determination to stay close to the book, including narrative elements, makes that a notch harder. In this case, perhaps it was that Annie Lareau, as the adaptor, was too appreciative of Cather's work. Making a dramatic production means finding the strongest storyline and then making active, dynamic dialogic scenes. In this regard, it fails. It's got way too much narration, which undercuts dramatic moments that could have been much more emotionally immediate for the audience. Maybe it takes a more ruthless approach than was done here. It's also a very long production at almost three hours. So, one ends up with a mixed feeling toward the story.

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